A union that represents 32,000 Alberta workers, mainly in food processing and retail sectors, is calling for enhanced safety protections and the return of pandemic pay premiums for essential workers.
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401 is concerned about rising COVID-19 case numbers in Alberta and pandemic fatigue or complacency.
“The second wave of this pandemic is in full swing,” union president Thomas Hesse said in a news release Monday.
“We are seeing a sharp increase in positive COVID-19 cases and further workplace outbreaks, including multiple cases at a Superstore in Calgary.
“These trends are terrifying, especially for workers who are still being told they are too essential to ‘stay home’ and that they no longer deserve pandemic pay premiums.”
On Tuesday, Alberta Health confirmed, on average, 567 new COVID-19 cases per day over the last four days. The total number of active cases in Alberta hit 6,110 Tuesday. Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Alberta’s positivity rate has risen to 6.8 per cent.
In March, grocery chains across Canada temporarily raised wages.
Sobeys paid frontline workers in stores and distribution centres $50 more a week, regardless of number of hours worked. Workers with 20 hours or more a week received an extra $2 an hour.
Loblaws temporarily raised wages by an estimated 15 per cent, while Metro raised wages by $2 an hour.
However, most of those pandemic payments were scaled back or eliminated by summer.
With the coronavirus a part of Canadians’ lives for more than three months, Loblaws stores and distribution centres “have settled into a good rhythm,” Sarah Davis, Loblaw president, wrote in an email to workers sent on June 11 and obtained by the Canadian Press.
“With this stability and economies reopening, we have decided the time is right to transition out of our temporary pay premium.”
“Essential workers have been told they must come to work to provide key services to the public,” said Karamjit Ryan, a UFCW member working at a Safeway pharmacy in Edmonton. “When the company took away pandemic pay, we felt like we went from ‘heroes’ to ‘zeroes.’”
UFCW Local 401 says that 67 Alberta worksites represented by the union have been impacted by positive cases so far, ranging from a single case to more than 950 cases at a single site, most notably at Cargill High River. The union said it’s seen “a sharp uptick” in reported cases in recent weeks.
As of Tuesday, Alberta Health said there were outbreaks at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, a Walmart Supercentre in Grande Prairie, Canada Bread Company in Edmonton, Hello Fresh warehouse in Edmonton, Maple Leaf Poultry in Edmonton, Loblaw Freeport Distribution Centre in Calgary, Goodfood Market in Calgary, the Westwinds Real Canadian Superstore in Calgary, Harmony Beef in Rocky View County and Cavendish in Lethbridge.
The union also wants to see province-wide regulations. It says the face-covering bylaws and physical distancing rules are “often unenforced at the store level” and “left up to front-line workers to enforce,” Hesse said.
Michael Hughes, the communications coordinator for UFCW Local 401 told Global News it sent a letter to Premier Kenney on April 23, outlining safety standards and precautions the union wanted to see across Alberta’s food industry.
The letter asked the province to, among other things, create a working group of labour, employers and health experts to set rules to protect workers in all food sector workplaces, immediately close worksites for 14 days when there’s an outbreak and have employees isolate and be tested.
The letter also asked that hazard pay remain while the pandemic does and that employers offer paid leave for all workers who cannot work due to COVID-19.
Hughes said the union has heard “nothing” back from the government.
“The Alberta government was pretty busy acting to ensure flexibility for employers… but what they haven’t done is ensure certain protections for food workers.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Alberta’s ministry of labour said the government recognizes “the tremendous work of all Albertans throughout this pandemic.”
When it comes to pandemic pay, the province put $170 million towards long-term care and supportive living sites’ staffing and supports.
“The funding supports topping up the wages of 12,000 health care aides by $2 an hour for the duration of the pandemic, increasing health care aide staffing levels by the equivalent of 1,000 positions, and providing paid practicums to fast-track another 1,000 health care aide students into jobs in continuing care facilities,” ministry spokesperson Adrienne South said.
“The province remains committed to providing support for all health care aides that work in contracted facilities, including the many community-based, non-profit facilities.”
The union said it’s tried to seek change through the companies themselves, with little success.
“We’ve asked employers to fix these things. That’s our first go-to,” Hughes said.
“Obviously we’ve gotten nowhere with them. They’re resistant to bring back these types of premiums.”
Global News has called and emailed Loblaw Companies and Sobeys Inc. for a response to the union’s call. This article will be updated if we receive a comment.
Hughes said Alberta has seen two of the largest outbreaks in Canada — at the Cargill and JBS processing plants — and the union wants the province to regulate safety precautions and investigate the cause of the outbreaks.
“We should feel ashamed at what happened at these plants… While the pandemic pay has been scaled back and basically put on the shelf by a lot of these employers, we’re still facing the same risks,” he said.
“It blows our mind that as the numbers increase to levels higher than they even were in the spring, employers are seeing cause to ease rules that were put in place to keep employees safe,” Hughes added.
“Even if it means less production, protect those employees.”
However, a spokesperson for Cargill stressed its safety protocols, many of which have been in place since March, have certainly “not been relaxed at any point as we remained focused on our employees’ safety,” Daniel Sullivan told Global News.
He said Cargill has worked with local health authorities to implement safety measures at facilities across Canada.
“This summer, we’ve added an additional 6,500 square feet of space to our cafeteria in our High River facility to allow for greater social distancing in common areas in anticipation of colder weather as well as expanded locker rooms for both men and woman along with additional washrooms,” Sullivan said.
JBS said it continues to recognize employees during the pandemic “through a financial bonus program.” The company also gave $2 million to support the community of Brooks.
JBS spokesperson Cameron Bruett said the company has implemented “hundreds of safety interventions to protect our workforce and support our community, including screening and temperature checking all employees prior to entering the facility, staggering start times and break times to promote physical distancing, requiring the use of masks and face shields, erecting physical barriers where possible, installing UV germicidal air sanitation and plasma bipolar ionization technologies to neutralize potential viruses in the air, and removing vulnerable populations from our facilities with full pay and benefits.”
Bruett said JBS had maintained all preventative measures and added more, including “new building structures to accommodate more social distancing during lunch and other breaks.”
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